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As RHS shows director, Stephen Bennett transformed the Chelsea Flower Show from a disorganised event known for its rustic charm, into the most successful horticultural show in the world. Now 64, Bennett worked for the RHS for 28 years before leaving at the end of 2013. This is the first time he has talked about life behind the scenes at the greatest flower show on earth.

As Bennett describes it, Chelsea was once “an uncomfortable, dangerously overcrowded, barely profitable,cheap jordans for sale, four-day jamboree”. It took a series of controversial measures to turn it into what is now said to be the UK’s most profitable consumer exhibition, with turnover running into tens of millions and the economic benefit to London and the UK exceeding ?400 million. With a cap on visitor numbers,cheap jordan shoes, timed entry, wrist bands for exhibitors and massive behind-the-scenes security all put in place by Bennett,http://www.wcygzs.com/E_GuestBook.aspcheapjordanshoesfreeshipping.com/bolg, the event started to run as smoothly as a rock concert, attended by celebrities from all over the world as well as royalty.

HM the Queen visits the NongNooch Thai Tropical Garden, Chelsea 2015


Royal Family gardeners

Passionate patronage from generations of the British Royal family has always been one of the show’s hallmarks, and in all his years as director of shows, Bennett did not miss a royal handshake. “The Queen missed Chelsea only twice,cheap air jordans, on both occasions for overseas state visits,” he says.

“Like the Queen Mother who loved plants and gardens, the Queen is incredibly knowledgeable.” For decades both the Queen and the Queen Mother were Patrons of the RHS.

Queen Elizabeth II and the Prince of Wales look at the 'Healing Garden', Chelsea 2002

Credit: Fiona Hanson/PA

“The Queen Mother particularly loved the floral displays in the marquee,” Bennett recalls. “Later, she would tour the show in a chauffeur-driven golf buggy, the driver in full uniform and cap. She did her homework in advance and knew exactly which exhibitors to consult and what plants she wanted for her gardens. She loved proper old-fashioned scented roses, which she would choose carefully then take up to Scotland for the gardens at Balmoral.”

Not all Chelsea’s royal visitors have been so horticulturally hands-on: “The Princess of Wales was a huge media attraction, of course,” Bennett says. “Didn’t know much about gardening - she was there to support a charity of which she was patron - but she laughed when I raised an eyebrow at her high heels. At that point, she was sinking into the lawn. I said, ‘When in a garden ma’am, one should be smart only from the ankles up.’”

Other royals who have loved the Chelsea Flower Show include the late Princess Margaret, who liked to test Bennett with “difficult, pointed questions” about plants and points of etiquette. He’s still in touch with Princess Alexandra – her house in Richmond Park is not far from Bennett’s base near Kingston-upon-Thames, and he sometimes delivers plants bought at an RHS show to her.

Prince Charles is, Bennett says, the keenest gardener, and even Prince Harry has been “bitten by the Chelsea bug”; his African charity Sentebale staged show gardens in 2013 and in 2015.

During a pre-show site recce with the Prince’s staff before his first appearance at Chelsea, Bennett was surprised to discover that the tall young man with a baseball cap pulled down over his eyes was Prince Harry himself, slightly concerned about what a young soldier was doing at a flower show.

Prince Harry with the Countess of Wessex and garden designer Jinny Blom

Credit: Ben Stansall/PA

“I didn’t recognise who it was until I peered under the cap. He was as startled as I was. ‘I am so sorry, sir,’ I said. ‘I wasn’t expecting you.’ I introduced him to some of the growers and garden designers and he became engaged and enthusiastic, taking an interest in the plants and the people and starting to plan his own future as a gardener.”

Star power

“The glamour and appeal of Chelsea has turned it into the foremost social and networking event in the business world” says Bennett who started Chelsea’s Charity Gala Preview. “More FTSE 100 chairmen and chief executives gather at Chelsea’s opening night than at any other annual event in the British social or business calendar, and some legendary deals have been done on the evening.”

Alan Titchmarsh shelters from the rain at Chelsea


Around 5,000 guests attend the champagne party every year, from actors like Joanna Lumley and Joan Collins, to celebrity chefs and rock stars alongside the big beasts of the city. Dustin Hoffman once turned up on a public day without a ticket and was almost turned away, but Bennett says, “I got him in and introduced him to Alan Titchmarsh. He later told me he had spent an ‘enchanted few hours’ at the show. Hoffman and Titchmarsh got on like a house on fire”.

Olivia Harrison and Ringo Starr at Chelsea

Credit: Jane Mingay

‘’Two Beatles came regularly - George and Ringo – both interested in the show gardens and plant displays. George’s wife, Olivia Harrison, staged a show garden in his memory after he died, which was much admired. Fans queued up to see it.”

Of Gardeners’ World’s presenter Monty Don, Bennett says, “Dear Monty, you never see him near a mirror – he isn’t one to worry about hair and make-up, but the ladies love him.”

Great eccentrics

Himself highly organised, rigorously disciplined and meticulously careful, Bennett did not imagine becoming best friends with the flamboyant Irish garden designer Diarmuid Gavin.

“Traditionalists frown on Diarmuid, but he is one of the great British innovators,” says Bennett. “When he first came to Chelsea 30 years ago, he had ?400 in his jeans pocket to make a garden – many now have budgets of at least ?400,000. He said he wasn’t interested in gold medals, he just wanted to get started. So, we took a risk – gut instinct – and allocated him a garden plot.

Princess Beatrice visits the English Eccentrics Garden by Diarmuid Gavin

Credit: Heathcliff O'Malley

“He learnt a lot. We both did. By the final day of the show, Diarmuid’s garden still wasn’t finished. Earlier on we had to escort the Queen around the garden while Diarmuid was crawling around, builder’s bum in the air, laying stones and turf, and after four days he was still on hands and knees. He finished the garden at the end of the very last day and it was stunning. But within hours it had to be demolished. It was a lesson about timing, planning and budget.”

Last year’s offering from Gavin – a Heath Robinson garden for Harrods, with spinning trees and hydraulic box hedges – took pride of place on the Triangle, a key site at Chelsea.

“Conventionalists scoff at Diarmuid for his flying pink pod, his coloured balls and the vast scaffolding tower on which he presented lines of Chelsea Pensioners in scarlet coats for an iconic photograph. But they were stunning, ground-breaking exhibits whose images went around the world. Diarmuid thinks outside the box and pushes the boundaries of garden design and construction and I love that.”

Diarmuid Gavin in his garden for Camelot

Credit: Brian Smith

“It’s good to shake things up now and then”, Bennett believes, “and occasional disappointments [with show gardens] make you appreciate the perfection we come to expect at Chelsea”.

Controversies as well as camaraderie add to the backstage drama among designers and exhibitors at Chelsea. “There’s occasionally a bit of diva behaviour, but if someone really needs help the exhibitors support each other, lending plants, equipment and tools – it’s a brotherhood of master gardeners”.

Even so, there have been some tricky moments. Bennett recalls a time when, on a busy public day at peak capacity, “Some bright spark drilled into the road outside and fractured the mains water supply. Thames Water came to the rescue, pumping water from tankers over the railings from the Chelsea Embankment. “Running a major event is like a theatre production – the show must go on.”

Shows of the future

Now, new projects are on the agenda: Ascot Racecourse in partnership with the Savill Garden and the Valley Gardens at Windsor Great Park, has just announced the launch of the Ascot Spring Garden Show.

Planned and designed by Bennett for April 2018 and then annually, it is, he says, “a dream come true”. Bennett is also the consultant for the Woburn Abbey Garden Show, which is being reorganised and relaunched next year. He is a busy man, but Chelsea has been important to him and remains close to his heart. “I’m running my own business now,” he says, “but I still find myself at Chelsea. It's full of my friends and I love it.”


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